Wikipedia and the untidy sifting (mixing?) of fact and fiction…

Excellent piece in this week’s New Yorker on Wikipedia. As previously highlighted by Conor Brady, Wikipedia is a two headed beast. It far outstrips it’s mainstream rival in comprehensiveness, but can give rise to some misleading (and profoundly trivial) depths. Stacy Schiff talks to one tenured professor who got hooked on making entries last year:

Initially, he contributed to articles in his field—on the penitential rite, transubstantiation, the papal tiara. Soon he was spending fourteen hours a day on the site, though he was careful to keep his online life a secret from his colleagues and friends. (To his knowledge, he has never met another Wikipedian, and he will not be attending Wikimania, the second international gathering of the encyclopedia’s contributors, which will take place in early August in Boston.)

Gradually, Essjay found himself devoting less time to editing and more to correcting errors and removing obscenities from the site. In May, he twice removed a sentence from the entry on Justin Timberlake asserting that the pop star had lost his home in 2002 for failing to pay federal taxes—a statement that Essjay knew to be false. The incident ended there. Others involve ideological disagreements and escalate into intense edit wars. A number of the disputes on the English-language Wikipedia relate to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and to religious issues.

Almost as acrimonious are the battles waged over the entries on Macedonia, Danzig, the Armenian genocide, and Henry Ford. Ethnic feuds die hard: Was Copernicus Polish, German, or Prussian? (A nonbinding poll was conducted earlier this year to determine whether the question merited mention in the article’s lead.) Some debates may never be resolved: Was the 1812 Battle of Borodino a victory for the Russians or for the French? What is the date of Ann Coulter’s birth? Is apple pie all-American?

(The answer, at least for now, is no: “Apple trees didn’t even grow in America until the Europeans brought them over,” one user railed. He was seconded by another, who added, “Apple pie is very popular in the Netherlands too. Americans did not invent or introduce it to the Netherlands. You already plagiarized Santa Claus from our Saint Nicholas. Stop it!”)

Remind you of somewhere?

Martin Wattenberg and Fernanda B. Viégas, two researchers at I.B.M. who have studied the site using computerized visual models called “history flows,” found that the talk pages and “meta pages”—those dealing with coördination and administration—have experienced the greatest growth. Whereas articles once made up about eighty-five per cent of the site’s content, as of last October they represented seventy per cent. As Wattenberg put it, “People are talking about governance, not working on content.” Wales is ambivalent about the rules and procedures but believes that they are necessary. “Things work well when a group of people know each other, and things break down when it’s a bunch of random people interacting,” he told me.

And a gripe I have long had with some of our most opinionated posters:

…Larry Sanger, argues that too many Wikipedians are fundamentally suspicious of experts and unjustly confident of their own opinions. Wikipedia has gone from a nearly perfect anarchy to an anarchy with gang rule,” he told me. Even Eric Raymond, the open-source pioneer whose work inspired Wales, has found his corrections to entries on science fiction dismantled by users who evidently felt that he was trespassing on their terrain. “The more you look at what some of the Wikipedia contributors have done, the better Britannica looks,” Raymond said. He believes that the open-source model is simply inapplicable to an encyclopedia. For software, there is an objective standard: either it works or it doesn’t. There is no such test for truth.

  • Keith M

    For all its faults, Wikipedia is the closest thing to answer the question of “life, the universe and everything” and in fairness anything you now see as being incorrect can be submitted and the aticle put under dispute.

  • But more importantly it is (a) a lot more fun than Encyclopaedia Brittania (b) a lot more fun than Microsoft Encarta (c) ‘outsells’ both of these in terms of web visits (d) is at least when inaccurate is wildly inaccurate (e) the online realisation of the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Douglas Adams triumphs again despite being dead (although in line with Diaster Area’s guitarist he may be dead for tax reasons)

  • Occasional Commentator

    For all Wikipedia’s faults, they are faults that are shared within every other source of information, whether it be Britannica or the BBC.

    Just as their are Wikipedians who like to protect what they see as their turf, there are journalists and surely Britannica employees who do the same. I’ve seen similar office politics where I work.

    The advantage that Wikipedia has is that it’s much easier to upstage somebody who’s plain wrong. And because nobody has to share the same employment, there just isn’t the same office politics nonsense going on to provide a bubble around these buffoons.

    Even if Wikipedia was frozen today with no edits allowed again and all the controversial pages (politics) were removed, Wikipedia would still be a far more useful site than any alternative. I find it to be even more useful than Google. I’d often check for stuff in Wikipedia first now, before falling back on Google.

    Somebody said “the problem with Wikipedia is that it only works in practice, it’s doesn’t work in theory”. (PS: the funny thing is though that once would get over the initial prejudices, it’s not hard to prove in theory that Wikipedia will keep getting much better quicker than anything else).

  • In testament to the cosmic Brownian Motion of ideas and facts, it is noteworthy that the Charles Van Doren of Britannica Encyclopedia fame mentioned in Schiff’s article is the very Charles Van Doren that was caught up in the cheating scandal over the NBC quiz show Twenty-One in 1958-1959.

    I do not mention this to further castigate Van Doren or his legacy, only to express my wonder at life’s bizarre mix of coincidence.

  • Bill

    Contains many misconceptions like Bono being from Ballymun instaed of Glasnevin a weakness of group effort. When they get it right it is the strength of group effort.

  • Pete

    Gavin Friday and Bono’s “Ballymun” Roots

    See the Glasnevin boys’ local RUC station

  • Valenciano

    It’s a useful tool but some of the political stuff can get a bit heated. There’s a near constant edit war going on in the Republican Sinn Fein article at the minute for example as RSF supporters are continually trying to insert their propaganda into it. Previously I had a few edit wars with people on the House of Cards article who clearly didn’t know the definition of a political majority and couldn’t accept that a BBC production could simply make a blunder. The citation fascists (people who insist on a ref for absolutely everything even when its blindingly obvious) are the most tedious though.

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